The Conflicted Angler

by Michael Wolcott on May 3, 2011

I could stand here and fish until dark, I think. Or load a backpack and walk upstream, and keep fishing until I am an old man.

Thoughts like these come to mind easily in late June up on the Idaho panhandle, when swallows are feeding on mayflies and you are standing on the north bank of the Lochsa River, where it pours out of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. You watch the sparkling water heading for the Pacific Ocean and imagine what swims behind the boulders, in the shade of those 500-year-old cedars.

You stand and stare at the wide river splashing over rocks and consider, for the first time in a decade, buying a fishing license. You remember catching fish.

The trout of my Eastern childhood, small native brookies and even smaller hatchery browns, wouldn’t look like much on a stringer today. But back then they were huge — potent gifts from the universe, the nearest things I knew to divinity.

I fished every day of my tenth summer. Dragging baited hooks through water was all that mattered. I fished the little trout streams of my home town with the stoned concentration of a slot gambler. Every cast was a fresh bet.

I wanted one fish, then another. I wanted the biggest fish. It was in there somewhere, under the water’s blank sheen. Never once did I question this insatiable desire. It was just what I did. Looking back though, a few motives stand out.

There was the boyish romance associated with “living off the land” (a good impulse, by the way). Carrying home three or four pan-sized trout on a forked willow branch, I became Jim Bridger for an afternoon, and what ten-year-old doesn’t like that?

Another good reason to fish was to immerse myself in the semi-wild world beyond the edge of my little town. If the fish weren’t biting, there was always something — prickly thickets full of blackberries, chrome green dragonflies mating, a box turtle laying eggs — to capture my attention.

And there was freedom — total, delicious freedom. Walking up a river, any river, I escaped the grid of expectations that was family life. No one knew exactly where I was or what I was doing (a condition I still enjoy).

My fishing was also driven, I suspect, by the troubling hungers every pubescent boy knows and suffers and celebrates; I probably killed trout for emotional release. The act of killing can be pleasurable (think of the house cat with its mouse), relaxing and even cathartic.

Of course fishing also expressed my species’ evolutionary heritage. Just like the dogs and cats and bears of the world, we humans have evolved as efficient, sometimes gleeful predators.

But our talents for abstract reasoning and conceptual thought complicate this arrangement, and make us unique in the animal kingdom. The suffering of other critters bothers us. We have invented ethics.

This problematic empathy wasn’t so pressing in 1966 as it is today. But even then I knew, dimly, that to capture and kill a fish is to deprive it of an essential right. The act tears at the fabric of something delicate and priceless, and should not be taken lightly.

The trout of my boyhood, darting for cover under the banks of Mad River and Fish Creek could not be improved upon. Their mottled olive skin and cobalt-ringed dots were treasure, coins of delight. I could haul in a writhing fish and briefly feel a magical connection to its nearby but utterly foreign world.

In that same shining moment, however, I also felt something break. The fish was burning alive in the summer air, and I knew it. The colors faded quickly. The body stiffened. A thin slime of guilt clung to my hands. Still I dragged the creek with my treble hook, wanting more. More.

Today I cannot ignore the knowledge that the hooked fish burns alive because of human desire, and for human pleasure.

I have no quarrel with the killing and eating of animals, if it’s done with respect, compassion and skill. I’m an enthusiastic carnivore. But I don’t have much heart for the killing myself. Not these days.

Still, the predator gene lives on. Watching the river slide by as evening falls, I find myself wanting to fish. But don’t suggest catch-and-release. The traumatizing and sometimes killing of fish merely for amusement seems like pure, cruel self-indulgence.

Catch-kill-and-eat seems far worthier. But neither sort of fishing feels right for me these days. For now, standing on the banks of the Lochsa, I know I’ve had enough.

Michael Wolcott once spent a week electro-shocking trout in the upper drainages of the Snake River, a job that posed difficult ethical questions but offered excellent menu options. He writes from the Colorado Plateau and the northern Rockies.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

lou skannon May 28, 2011 at 4:34 am

is it just me? what was this about, anyway?

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Michelle Nickol June 4, 2011 at 6:30 pm

I’ve been a reading fan of Michael Wolcott’s for years. I read him when I’m looking for important questions, not easy answers. I also read him for the poetry in his work. It’s the kind of writing that requires the reader to, whoa, slow down a little. Consider. Re-consider. Grow a little. Thanks Michael. Keep up the good work!

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